Sweet As by Jub Clerc [6/10]

Sweet As review

A coming of age tale featuring an indigenous teenager being sent on a photography-based therapeutic bus tour of remote Wester Australia, “Sweet As” has plenty to recommend itself. The cast is solid, with special mention needed of Shantae Cowan-Brown in the lead role and Carlos Sanson, Jr. as the photographer-leader. The story solidly tackles the film’s core themes of indigenous cyclic family toxicity, the traditional rite of passage,, and the healing power of creativity. The scenery intoxicates. But highlights are few. The plot is predictable, none of the actors shines out with intensity, and the cinematography, while neanced, sometimes fails to show the land’s true grandeur. This is a time for watching indigenous Australian films, and Sweet As can be recommended as a solid piece of entertainment, but one can’t help but wish for more.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Anthony Fabian [7/10]

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris review

Can a movie “feel” like the book it is based upon? My memory of Paul Gallico’s underlying novel is faint, but I was amazed to find that, yes, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” has all the wholesome but spirited atmosphere of the 1958 classic. A simple tale of a British house cleaner following her dream to fly to Paris in search of a frightfully expensive, lavish Dior dress. There the uncultured, accented woman imposes herself upon the ultra-chic world o of high fashion, with chuckle-worthy consequences and an outcome that is, strangely enough, not predictable. Lesley Manville is superb in the starring role, instantly lovable, and the ensemble cast in both London and Paris is not far behind. Anthony Fabian’s direction accentuates the almost goofy fairy-tale atmosphere, employing cliche scenes in a fresh manner. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris could have been a twee mess but somehow it retains a vivacity throughout. A sweet viewing from the good old days.

The Diplomat [8/10]

The Diplomat review

The super-smart Deborah Cahn is showrunner for “The Diplomat,” a slick political thriller series, and her skills with plot and dialogue shine out. The show’s premise is sweet: a highly experienced field diplomat is rushed to become the new ambassador to England, finds herself immediately enmeshed in a ship explosion with mysterious origins, and needs to navigate her two worlds while coping with a charismatic, devious husband who has been more senior, including an ambassador’s posting himself. The plot is suitably byzantine, the scenes are immaculately unfurled, and the tension is tangible. Ordinarily, we would expect this to be a routine Netflix thriller, that is, entertaining and proficient, but what distinguishes The Diplomat from most others is the roster of actors. All the many key characters are wonderfully cast and employed, but the standout is Keri Russell in the star role. She is flawlessly magnetic, making the most of a snappy script with terrific dialogue. Hopefully Season 2 will follow apace.

Flyways by Randall Wood [9/10]

Flyways review

A documentary that might be hard to source or watch, “Flyways: The Untold Story of Migratory Shorebirds” is an undiluted journey of astonishment. At one level a simple documentary about the miracle of long-distance bird migration over long-established aerial flyways, the movie transcends the usual wildlife documentary with superb, simple storytelling, astounding cinematography, impeccable pacing and control, and just-so narration. I was especially impressed with how the decision to follow three bird species, the Curlew, the Knot, and the Godwit up the three major flyways (Australia across Asia, north of Africa and then west across Russia, and South America up through the United States to Alaska), for the first time educating me on this amazing annual globe-straddling phenomenon. Artfully segueing between the three birds/flyways by following scientists and volunteers trying to track and understand the birds, and doing so composedly but capturing the ardor of these heroes, Randall Wood transcends the immediate “lesson about nature” to plea for a new consciousness in humans. In watching, one is amazed, then transported, then moved, and finally angered. Flyways is remarkable and deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get.

2023 Top 10 movies/shows halfway through this year

Top 10 films

These days it seems fashionable to decry the quality of streaming shows, especially from Netflix, but from my perspective, what we continue to receive from the totality of the streamers plus the traditional TV stations and movie producers remains an outstanding menu. You won’t go wrong with the smorgasbord below, six seasons and four films, three sci-fi offerings and an assortment of other genres.

Follow the links below to my reviews.

Succession Season 4 (10/10)—need I say anything at all?

This first season of Slow Horses was most welcome but the second season (10/10)—perfection, the spy thriller outing you must see!

The Last of Us (9/10)—a zombie series, to be sure, but beautifully scripted and acted, and rich with characters under stress.

Tetris (9/10)—a pell-mell, zany movie rich with recent Cold War and techo history.

Corsage (9/10)—a most divergent movie for me, examining the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1877-78, but oh, the heartbreaking brilliance!

The Peripheral (8/10)—a scintillating eight-episode rendition of William Gibson’s outstanding sci-fi novel.

The second season (8/10) of Fisk, as delightfully droll and Melbourne-centric as the first.

Vesper (8/10)—a French-Lithuanian-Belgian post-apocalyptic science fiction extravaganza dripping with murky atmospherics.

Aftersun (8/10)—Charlotte Wells’ arthouse reflection on love and despair is not for everyone but it has lingered in me.

The sixth season (8/10) of Outlander—history, a dash of fantasy, romance, derring-do, and sex … what’s not to love?

2023 Top 10 books halfway through this year

A need to trim my bedside tower of books meant that what I read was lopsided, tending to feature nonfiction books aligned with my apocalyptic or personal change agendas. With no books receiving the most rare 10/10 rating, it would also seem that the overall quality this half-year dropped a bit. Never mind. Any of these books would make a fine read or birthday present. Enjoy!

The links below zap you to my review.

Crook Manifesto (9/10) by Colson Whitehead—a follow-up to Harlem Shuffle, from a couple of years ago, this is both an engaging crime caper novel and deep, atmospheric historical fiction.

Frank Kennedy’s The Final Verdict (9/10)—I don’t expect this to be for everyone, the ninth of nine complex, thrilling, deftly written sci-fi space opera novels, but what a ride it has been!

The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan (9/10)—kaleidoscopic, scholarly, and almost lyrical in expression, this history of Earth and its human denizens, told with a climate change lens, will be read for decades.

Day’s End by Garry Disher (8/10)—I’m a monster fan of Australia’s premier crime fiction novelist, so it is no surprise to recommend the fourth of his Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen country cop procedurals.

Peter Attia’s Outlive (8/10)—is this book, on “healthful” longevity, for specialty audiences only? It shouldn’t be: Attia writes with clarity and generosity.

Hinge Points by Siegfred S. Hecker (8/10)—another book you won’t find at the front of your bookshop, I commend this clear, heartfelt tale of a tireless campaigner tackling North Korea’s nuclear buildup.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (8/10)—yet another brilliantly written novel from this author, based on the life of America’s most famous racehorse and radiating scholarship and heart.

The Insect Crisis by Oliver Milman (8/10)—you’ve probably heard about the unbelievable scything of global insect populations over the past decades (and noticed the loss of windscreen insect mush after country driving), so read this, by a keening expert, and act.

Built to Move by Juliet Starrett & Kelly Starrett (8/10)—another left-field gem, a jaunty, readable manual on how to ensure you can move and thrive into old age (something you should prepare for when young!).

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris (8/10)—another splendid historical novel showcasing a fascinating byway, that of the “regicides” of King Charles I being pursued in America in the 17th century.

The Giants by Rachel Antony & Laurence Billiet [10/10]

The Giants review

The Giants” may well prove to be as divisive as its subject matter, the founder of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, which would be a pity, because it is a beautifully made movie of great grandeur and subtlety. In a bold strategy, the documentary’s writer-directors have elected to duck back and forth between the fascinating biography of Brown and elegiac stories (related by a superb set of talking heads) of Tasmania’s forests (gorgeously filmed, often overlain with animations depicting the interconnectedness of nature). Utilizing a monster array of archival footage, the biography walks through Brown’s early years, his springboarding of the epochal defense of the Franklin River, his fraught days in the brutal setting of Tasmanian parliament (especially after he came out as gay), his seminal days starting and slowly, slowly growing the Australian Greens into a viable third political party, and finally his campaigning post-retirement. Only at the end does Bob Brown appeal, just briefly to the viewer, and that moment had me in tears. The Giants is a cleverly written, sharply produced documentary with heart that is a must-see at this juncture in Australia’s climate change politics.

An Ungrateful Instrument by Michael Meehan [4/10]

An Ungrateful Instrument” is an unabashedly literary gothic tale set in the 17th Century court of Louis XIV. It is a classic tale of mad father atop trodden-upon son, with the father a composer of virtuosic, never-written-down music for the viola da gamba (which seems like a small but fretted cello) torturing virtuosity out of his son. Combine that crazed setup with the narrator being the never-speaking daughter, and all the elements are in place for a rip-roaring grand tragedy. But the author’s tone is a stilted formal one that disengaged this reader, and a suite of chapters showcasing a viol-maker in the woods describing how to manufacture the instrument flushes out any dramatic staging. In the end, An Ungrateful Instrument offers an interesting portrait of the times, and a few impressive set pieces, but proves to be over-ornate and clumsy.

Nuclear Decisions by Lisa Langdon Koch [8/10]

Lisa Langdon Koch Nuclear Decisions review

Buyer beware: “Nuclear Decisions: Changing the Course of Nuclear Weapons Programs” is not for the general reader but for the many wonks among us fascinated by a world graced with nine nuclear-armed nations. We ask: why nine, so many? Why not many more? Academics keep pumping out books with different theories but most are hardly entertaining. Nuclear Decisions does entertain, as long as your idea of entertainment is a careful exploration of the notion that proliferation decisions cannot be explained by a given country’s security environment, but rather that such decisions are made by human leaders buffeted by domestic and international concerns. In necessarily becoming rather detailed and technical, the author distinguishes Nuclear Decisions with a style as clear as a bell and with a smooth grasp of plotting. The nine country case studies taken from what she sees as the three nonproliferation eras (permissive, transition, nonproliferation regime, in itself a useful concept) are fascinating. All in all, Nuclear Decisions is a dazzling treat for those ordinary people like us puzzling about the nuclear threat.

The Inspection by Elegance Bratton [5/10]

The Inspection review

We don’t view films in a vacuum. I always stress to my fellow movie club members that one assessment category has to be the movie’s themes/ideas as input to the viewing. Some of us adore movies about heavy metal, others swoon over opera, and the reverse is also true. Thus “The Inspection,” structurally and dramatically sound, flopped for me because its subject matter revolted. Jeremy Pope is stellar as a young, down-and-out gay black man who unexpectedly aspires to become a U.S. Marine by undergoing that institution’s notorious “boot camp,” with its hazing and brutality. Nothing about the treatment of the young hopeful was any surprise to me and I could barely put up with all the ritualized, monstrous inhumanity designed to turn young men and women into unthinking killing machines. Apparently inspired by his own life, director/writer Elegance Bratton presents the godawful tale in all its savage glory, one that, in the end (and grotesquely, in my view) glorifies the rite of passage provided by the Marines. Sure-footed and atmospherically filmed, The Inspection has the hallmarks of a fine film, but I, for one, despised it.